EEOC v. Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A. Inc., No. 10-1239 (7th Cir. Apr. 29, 2011)

By Paul Mollica

A decision affirming the validity of an EEOC subpoena sheds a light on the continuing presence of racial segregation in the workplace. Whether benign or not, steering African-Americans or other ethnic minorities to particular offices or stores based on race is specifically unlawful under Title VII.

EEOC v. Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A. Inc., No. 10-1239 (7th Cir. Apr. 29, 2011): In 1964, Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(2), made it unlawful “to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Although this section conjures up images of Jim Crow, and is seldom litigated today, even a half-century later it is not unheard-of for employers to “steer” minority employees to operations that service a predominantly minority customer base. And so, in this case, the EEOC suspected the petitioning party of concentrating its few African-American employees in a single location, a suburb outside of Chicago with a strong minority population.

The district court enforced the subpoena and the Seventh Circuit affirms. The panel notes that the Supreme Court, in EEOC v. Shell Oil Co., 466 U.S. 54, 62 (1984) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(a)), set a low threshhold for investigation of a charge: “The agency must have ‘a realistic expectation rather than an idle hope’ that the information requested will advance its investigation of the charge,” a “standard of relevance is broader than the standard embodied in the Federal Rule of Evidence 401.”

The panel holds that the scope of the charging party’s complaint was not too narrow to support systemic discovery of the company’s hiring practices. The former employee complained about compensation and termination, as well as retaliation for making a complaint of discrimination to the company’s human resources department. The employer contended that this charge did not implicate its hiring practices. But the panel holds that the pattern of hiring was still relevant:

“The Commission is entitled generally to investigate employers within its jurisdiction to see if there is a prohibited pattern or practice of discrimination. Here, Thompson alleged both a specific instance and such a pattern of race discrimination. He asserted that he was treated differently from white co-workers in the ‘terms and conditions’ of his employment, and that he was unequally disciplined for not meeting a sales quota. It is true that Thompson was not saying that Konica had refused to hire him, but that does not make hiring data irrelevant. The question under Shell Oil and its progeny is not whether Thompson specifically alleged discrimination in hiring, but instead is whether information regarding Konica’s hiring practices will ‘cast light’ on Thompson’s race discrimination complaint.”

The panel also observes that the EEOC “is entitled to file its own charge, see 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(b), in which it can allege a pattern or practice of discrimination and calibrate its investigation accordingly.”